More from Cwm Idwal.

Rowan, Ogwen Cottage
Rowan, Ogwen Cottage

Last week I posted about my eventually successful visit to Cwm Idwal in Snowdonia. But alongside the story of the photographs there was a quite different narrative running in parallel.

On my first visit to the Cwm, amongst the huge boulders below Twll Du, I came across some small brown birds. I quickly twigged that they were twite, which, strangely enough, I had been reading about the previous evening. As far as British birds go they are probably the supreme example of the “little brown job”. Visually there are no distinguishing features at all unless you can see the pale pink rump patch, but they do have a distinctive twanging call, which confirms their identity. At first it was just a couple of birds, then a juvenile begging food from a parent, then a bird leaving a possible nest site and finally a flock of 15 – 20 birds.

On my return to Idwal Cottage I looked around for someone to report my sightings to. There was no-one but a girl from the National Trust, who “thought she had heard of twite” but that was it. While I drank my coffee I noticed the nearby organic burger van, whose owner, Gwyn Thomas, the local farmer, was conversing with customers. My partner has worked with him so I went over for a chat. Eventually I brought up the subject of my  sightings. To my surprise and delight he is quite an authority on twite! Along with several other farmers in Nant Ffrancon he grows a seed crop for them to feed on during the autumn before they move down to the coast for the winter. I’m sometimes not a great admirer of farmers but this man is a star!

During our conversation a car drew up alongside and the driver came over. I recognised him but couldn’t put a name to the face. Gwyn left me with him and a tentative conversation began. I wondered aloud if I had seen him on TV. “No, I work on radio…” he replied. Not really a great help! “I did a book with you!” he added. It came to me in a flash. It was Dei Tomos, the author with whom I had worked on the Welsh version of “Wales at Waters Edge”. I buried my head in my hands in embarrassment! To be fair though, it was hardly a collaboration and we had only met once, and he couldn’t place me at first either.

The social aspect of my weekend continued the following morning. Back at Ogwen Cottage after a third unsuccessful visit to the Cwm, I was drinking coffee by my van. A familiar figure appeared. It was Martin Ashby, owner of Ystwyth Books in Aberystwyth, and one oldest and most valued friends. He was with his mate Nigel Dudley and just about to set off on a long walk up in to the Carneddau. I reluctantly turned down their invitation to join them.

On my return home I reported my twite records to the BTO Officer for Wales, Kelvin Jones. He told me that twite are declining steeply in Wales, and there is a project going to try to reverse this. Apart from the feeding project mentioned above birds are being ringed on the coast in winter in the hope that sightings in summer of ringed birds can reveal more about their movements. Although I had not seen any rings it seems my sightings had been the first this summer! The rarest breeding bird in Wales may actually now be twite, he said. (Does that make them rarer than osprey,  I wonder……)

Just a note on the photograph above. While dull, cloudy conditions are usually the kiss of death for most “big” landscapes, they can be ideal for details within the landscape. This lovely rowan tree was just below Ogwen Cottage.

To read more about Gwyn Thomas and his work in Cwm Idwal, click here.


To follow Tales from Wild Wales, scroll down to the bottom and click Follow


A weekend at Cwm Idwal

Pen Yr Ole Wen and Llyn Idwal
Pen Yr Ole Wen and Llyn Idwal

I’ve been in the photographic doldrums for a few weeks now. It seems to happen most years during mid-summer when I’m pretty busy getting stuff out into shops and creative activities tend to take a back seat. But last weekend the forecast seemed promising – sunny intervals rather than wall-to-wall sunshine – and I decided to head up to Snowdonia. I had it in mind to try out my new Panasonic gx7 and maybe do a mountain walk into the Glyderau or on to Snowdon. Early on Saturday morning I headed up into Cwm Idwal with the option of going on to the tops but conditions were really not pleasant. It was windy and cold with plenty of cloud cover. I can’t say that me and the gx7 got on like a house on fire. I hated the menu system on the gx1 and the gx7 does seem better in this respect. But it’s still not an SLR! I got a few decent images when the sun briefly shone. But after using it intermittently for about 3 hours, and taking about fourty shots, I noticed the battery power was practically down to zero. This wasn’t right at all! I spent a while looking for locations to re-visit later on, and then it was back down to the van to wait out the middle hours of the day.

Bog pool, Cwm idwal
Bog pool, Cwm idwal

Cwm Idwal is a National Nature Reserve and location of many of Snowdonia’s rare arctic-alpine plant species. Sheep have been largely excluded for some years now to allow the flora to recover from the accumulated effects of countless nibbling teeth. I was very pleasantly surprised by how extensively the heather has regenerated and it was in full colourful bloom. In some ways mid-August is my favourite time of year for exactly this reason. Swathes of purple calluna are such a sensuous experience; a feast for both the eyes and the lens, and somehow more than that as well. So later on, under full cloud cover, I took my full DSLR kit up into the cwm and spent some time taking close-ups of a boggy pool and its surroundings, just heaving with wild flowers. Then it was over to the spot I had located earlier which gave a view over to Pen Yr Ole Wen. In still conditions this mountainous backdrop would be reflected in the lake. What made my location particularly special was that I could also include a gnarly old mountain ash tree, apparently growing out of bare rock, in the foreground.  Unfortunately the weather was not playing ball. I made a few images, but could see that much more exciting things would be possible in better light. The next morning I was up there again and the following evening as well! Conditions were still and vast hordes of midges appeared, more than I’ve ever known anywhere in Wales.

Monday morning dawned more clear and after a quick whizz round to Llynnau Mymbyr (Capel Curig) I decided to return to Cwm Idwal for one more try at the image I had envisaged two days earlier. I set off full of confidence and with a light step. It’s funny how a 5kg pack feels like 2kg in such a situation but more like 15 at the end of an unsuccessful day. I had reached my spot by 9 a.m. but the sun had not yet come over the ridge of Glyder Fach. Surely it couldn’t be long?  The edge of the mountain’s shadow slowly crept down the heathery rock-face on the left-hand side until all was illuminated. My moment came at 9.50 a.m. A few minutes later I had a selection of shots and the sun had become obstructed by spreading and developing cumulus cloud. It had all gone so well! And only on my fifth visit………

So why does this image work?

Firstly I am so thrilled by the location; the rowan was a real bonus. It is probably one of only two in the Cwm – the result of many years of sheep grazing.

Secondly my angle of vision is exactly at right angles to the sun’s rays and my polariser is at its most effective. Any uneven polarisation is partly masked by what cloud there is. (I also used a 1-stop ND grad to balance the exposure)

Thirdly, the heather is in bloom. Only for a couple of weeks in the year would that be the case.

Fourth, there is no wind to disturb the surface of the lake and a full reflection is visible.

On the other hand, it gives such a benign impression of Llyn Idwal and its surroundings. Conditions would rarely be so amiable. So there’s definitely the place for an alternative interpretation of the location.  I’ll be back.

If anyone is in the mid-Wales area next week I’ll be giving the annual Halstatt Lecture at MOMA Wales, Machynlleth on Wednesday 26th at 1 pm. I’ll be talking about how I became a birder and a photographer, and finally both!

Tickets are £6.00. Phone 01654 703355 for more details.

My exhibition Bird/land is showing there until September 19th. Entry free of charge.

To follow Tales from Wild Wales scroll right down to the bottom and click Follow.



Digging in to the memory banks (part two)

Peregrine eyass, Cumbria, summer 1982
Peregrine eyass, Cumbria, summer 1982

Following on from my season on Mull (see previous post), I spent spring and summer of 1982 in Cumbria. I was a kind of roving species protection warden-come-survey worker, undertaking various raptor-related tasks. Although most birds of prey do very little most of the time – even during the breeding season – taking part in a 24-hour watch at a nest site is still a rewarding activity.  There is always the chance of seeing some previously unknown behaviour. At one cliff I noted a male peregrine at the eyrie being harassed repeatedly by a jay. The peregrine took no notice. At another I saw the well-grown eyass (peregrine youngster) being physically knocked off its nesting ledge by one of its parents. Adults do tempt fully-grown eyasses off the nest by carrying food in front of them, but this seemed a little bit extreme! Obviously not ready to fly, the juvenile tumbled down the cliff-face, then the scree slope beneath it and disappeared. A search party consisting of myself and some local ornithologists eventually found it, apparently quite well, deep in some bracken below the cliff (see pic above). Even at the tender age of six weeks, a peregrine is such a beautiful creature. There’s just something about those eyes……..

During 1983 – 84 I had what could be described as a “proper job”, working as, in effect, the first coastal footpath officer for Ceredigion. But I then began another long break from real work by spending late April – early August in the arctic on the Greenland White-fronted Goose Study 1984 expedition. The membership otherwise consisted mainly of ambitious young biology, zoology or environmental science graduates.  Although I had been through university and come out at the other end with a BSc, I had also gained a healthy ( I believe) scepticism about the scientific method.  I was also far more interested in the gyr and peregrine falcons found in the GWGS study area, which didn’t go down too well either! So I can’t claim to have been the most popular member of the expedition. But I actually managed to get a paper published in an American Raptor Research journal on my return to civilisation.

The homesickness I felt during every one of my summers with the RSPB was even more acute on the expedition.  The lyrics of the Robert Wyatt song “Moon in June” reverberated though my head over and over again during the dry Greenlandic summer.

“Ah but I miss the rain,

ticky, tacky, ticky,

and I wish that I were home again,

back home again, home again,

back home again…….”

Probably every expedition needs a scapegoat and I guess I was it. Helicopters frequently trundled over the study area and there were times when I longed for one to just pick me up and take me away.

Great northern diver, west Greenland, summer 1984.
Great northern diver, west Greenland, summer 1984.

However I had borrowed a long telephoto lens from my father and for the first time did some serious-ish bird photography. Much to the disgust of the expedition leader I set up a portable hide by the side of a lake where a pair of great northern divers was holding territory. I spent one full night in the hide, drifting into and out of dreamland as the eerie and evocative wailing calls of the divers echoed around me. It really was most surreal. The photographs I took there were technically very poor, unfortunately, but I can see quite clearly that what I was aiming for then was exactly what, thirty years later, I would be producing for  Bird/land. Birds in the landscape.

The same could be said for many of the other bird images I managed in Greenland and elsewhere during these early years. I have cropped a great northern diver image to panoramic format to illustrate this.

On return from Greenland I continued in the routine of field work during the summer, travelling and “resting” during the winter. I worked in central Scotland and north Wales during the following two summers. But it became more and more apparent that I was never going to get a “real job” in the world of conservation. I badly needed a means of earning a living that would sustain me for a period of years. Not shy of a challenge, I decided to become a photographer…….

The Halstatt lecture is at 1 p.m. on August 26th at MOMA Wales, Machynlleth, Powys. Tickets are £6.00 each. Call 01654 703355 for more details.

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, please scroll right down to the bottom and click Follow .




Digging in to the memory banks (part one)

Golden eaglet, Isle of Mull, summer 1981
Golden eaglet, Isle of Mull, summer 1981


To coincide with the Bird/land exhibition, I’ve been invited to give the annual Halstatt lecture at MOMA as part of the Machynlleth Festival. Rather than just running through a series of images from the exhibition this talk will have quite a strong personal content. The fee is reasonably generous so I have the time and opportunity to look back over my career as a photographer. I often wonder how the most minute details of people’s lives can be recalled by those engaged in writing their autobiographies. How can conversations be remembered if they took place decades ago? Perhaps authors keep a diary on the offchance that it might be needed or maybe there’s a liberal dash of artistic licence involved? But photographs can certainly help and I’ve been delving back into my slide collection and memory banks to see what I can find.

My first encounter with a camera came when my father gave me one of his old ones. I was about 14 and rushed around Britain taking pictures of the last steam trains in the couple of years before they were pensioned off. I even did a little developing and printing in the school darkroom until it was demolished. But I’m going to skip the very early years and move on to the late 1970’s after I moved to rural Wales. I was developing a keen interest in both wildlife and photography and North Ceredigion was a wonderful place to find myself. I was looking for a career in wildlife conservation and despite knowing very little about birds got a species protection job with the RSPB in 1979. I was sent to a remote part of north Wales where I was expected to watch two separate peregrine eyries about three miles apart which were annually robbed by falconers. I had hoped to be able to watch peregrines at close quarters but in fact spent most of the time cruising around the local roads looking for suspicious visitors. Police training would have been handy!

It was not really a success. I have two lasting memories of my couple of months there. Firstly managing to mentally construct a human figure on a ledge close to the eyrie half way up a cliff-face when in fact it was a jumble of rocks. I don’t think the local bobby was amused when he arrived. Or maybe he actually found it hilarious – bloody amateurs! Secondly I recall striking up a conversation, for some unknown reason, with a stranger who had just parked his car in a layby and was setting out for a walk. “Yes, I’m working for the RSPB” I happily told him. I suppose it was a bit odd when he returned quickly to his car and sped off. Back at base I discovered his car number plate on a list of those belonging to known nest-robbers. Later I did get to grips with another dodgy group of characters but I think by that time the peregrines had failed anyway.

As a result of my incompetence and obvious lack of knowledge about birds it took another couple of years before I worked for the RSPB again. But this time, in 1981, I suppose it was a really plum job – to spend the summer on Mull and check the island out for breeding white-tailed eagles. A group had wintered there but most were probably too young to start a serious breeding attempt. Once this had been established I turned my attention to the island’s peregrines, and then moved on to survey the whole of Mull for golden eagles. One imagines these wary birds nesting on the most inaccessible precipices but in fact, where there is a high density of them, they will build a nest on any tiny little outcrop or rocky stream side. It was quite an eye-opener! One of the classic texts on golden eagles was written by Seton Gordon during his stay on Mull and he photographed an eyrie there containing three large eaglets. I was able to clamber up to the same ledge where a pair of goldies was rearing just the one youngster in 1981. It was a rather placid creature despite its enormous size. See the picture above.

It might sound idyllic but there were many disadvantages. There is always the danger of accidents when one is tramping the hills alone. Scrambling along a crumbling line of inland cliffs I slipped and pulled a large rock down on to my head. Despite bleeding profusely I had to get myself to the local cottage hospital to be stitched up. It was a long walk over rough moorland and then a ten-mile drive to get there. I also managed to upset the local landowner network which did not go down well with RSPB HQ! I had been told by a Forestry Commission worker of a golden eagle pair whose nest had fallen out of an oak tree in a forestry plantation. The adults were rearing the eaglet on the ground and had rebuilt the nest around it. I just had to see this! Well, it was my job…….

As I entered the area through tall deer-proof forestry gates I came across a group of people coming the other way. I told them it was illegal to disturb Schedule One bird species at the nest without a licence. A very frosty conversation ensued. When I returned to my digs my landlord (a large landowner) told me that I had actually been on private forestry land. The people I questioned were the landowner and his pals and they were not amused. The island phone lines must have been buzzing that afternoon and from that moment onwards I was persona non grata on most of Mull!

The Halstatt lecture is at 1 p.m. on August 26th at MOMA Wales, Machynlleth, Powys. Tickets are £6.00 each. Call 01654 703355 for more details.

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, please scroll right to the bottom and click Follow.